30 Sep 2012

Big Sky

The Swiss have, as Paul Bilton puts it in his tongue-in-cheek Xenophobe's guide to the Swiss, a long-standing love affair with America:
This is because the USA is everything that Switzerland is not. (...) The Swiss imagine Americans to be freewheeling extrovert cowboys roaming unhindered over immense tracts of unspoilt land, whilst they labor under a strict bureaucratic system and social codes that place heavy burdens of responsibility on every citizen's shoulders. The wildest thing that a Swiss can do is buying an American car, and it is surprising how many do.
It does not stop there. Donning their cowboy hats, a good number of Swiss stick the Confederate flag to the rear-view mirror and drive their custom-imported Corvettes to the shooting range on the outskirts of Zurich for the annual Albisgüetli Country Festival. They dream of riding a chopper down Route 66. It always felt rather silly to me.

But not in Bozeman, Montana. On a recent visit to friends in the Big Sky state, I was treated to a good dose of the real Wild West. There were the railroad towns with big façades fronting wooden shacks. There were diners in which grey-haired women in checkered shirts sold donuts and watery coffee (50cts each, please). There were abandoned ghost towns, which after the gold rush were simply left to decay and tumbleweeds. There were endless prairies, dotted with cattle and the odd wind-water pump. Under the big, blue Montana sky, that clichéed sensation of freedom came lives on.


Just like the Swiss wannabes, the men here wore cowboy hats and leather boots. And just like the Swiss imagine, they do ride their horses pickup trucks across vast tracts of land, presumably carrying more than just the bow and arrow the pre-season confines them to hunting with. But unlike the gangsters of Lucky Luke lore, the people of the West seemed genuinely friendly and welcoming. From my friends to theirs, and to acquaintances beyond, a sense of down-to-earth hospitality and pride in welcoming a visitor was evident. I was invited to grab another Bud Light from the cooler, help myself to a burger from the BBQ, and enjoy the tailgate before the football game. Simple as that.

The all-to-brief visit culminated in a ride in my friend's vintage biplane. And when we were up there, in the Big Sky over Montana, suddenly there was a tune coming to my mind. Yippeh-eye-eh!

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17 Sep 2012

Triathlon

Is it a swim? Is it a road race? Or is it a run? As any triathlete will tell you, their polyvalent sport is the ultimate competition. And having been raised the son of one of these Ironmen, I've certainly had my fair chance to appreciate the challenges of the discipline. Or not. For all the prodding, encouragement, helpful advice and free-flow of equipment had a rather counterproductive effect: Throughout my youth, I preferred to defy the family’s head athlete by avoiding anything close to endurance sports, and seek refuge in fringe disciplines instead.

Time and again, I was taken along to some race or another, but in a semi-intentional indifference towards efforts involved, I chiefly took these days as occasions to hang out in some random town, spending hours munching away at pastry breakfasts, pasta lunches and bratwurst dinners, while occasionally strolling back to the racetrack to see my dad come around by one means of locomotion or another. When the day was done and the finish line was reached, I was ready to ask if we could please go to the water park the next day.

It was somewhat of a surprise, then, that I found my name on the start list for a triathlon this year – even if merely as the swimmer in a relay team. And yet it seemed sensible, especially in comparison to the challenge the colleagues in their forties had thrown us 30-somethings. They wanted us to take them on in the bold, but nonsensical Spartan Races, which seem to consist of nothing but crop tops and mud-crawling. Not yet in our mid-life crises, we smugly decided to go for the real deal instead.

As I stripped down to my swimming trunks on race day, and faced the stormy gusts which made the waves in Montréal’s olympic rowing basin carry white crests, the idea suddenly seemed foolish. I found myself surrounded by a crowd of athletic, wetsuit-clad and distinctively serious-looking racers performing their warm-up routines. With the Ironman distance competitors long off, wasn’t this supposed to be the just-for-fun group?

Not if the behavior in the first few minutes of the race are anything to go by. As we jostled for position in the water, I was pushed, pulled, grabbed and kicked by my fellow sportsmen. Between dodging them and the waves, it was quite a departure from the pool I had practiced in. Mercifully, I eventually found my space and rhythm, and as I plowed my way towards the transition zone, I tried to recall when exactly I had last participated in an athletic competition. It may have been that 1995 ski school race, when I outdid a group of Dutch kids for the top spot.

This time around, I was satisfied to have beaten at least some of the über-athletes to the transition zone, where I passed the baton to the biker on our team. By the time he completed his laps and passed it off to the runner, I had showered, regained my composure and developed an appetite for bratwurst. That unfortunately went unfulfilled, but the taste of competition may yet be one I could grow fond of.

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3 Sep 2012

Insomnia

It was one of those nights. It was too short. And yet, it seemed so long. The next morning, I'd have to get up at 5 in the morning to catch the flight into my Labour Day weekend. It was 11 in the evening already, and I had just returned from an exhilarating concert of one my favorite teenage pop acts. High time, then, to get some sleep.

Easier said than done. With my bags all packed, I rushed to brush my teeth, turn off the lights and wrap myself into the fluffy duvet. “Only a bit more than five hours before another long day starts”, I reminded myself as I squeezed my eyes closed. “Must sleep at once!”

Half an hour later, I had relived the best parts of the concert I’d just seen. Another half hour (or three cycles of the fridge compressor running, if you must know) later, I’d mentally walked through the process of getting to the airport the next morning – not that this is anything that requires particular cerebral effort. After that, as I was counting my flock of sheep, Dolly #47 veered off course and fell down some steep alpine cliff. And I was wide awake again.

It is ironic, Alanis Morrisette would undoubtedly contend. The harder you try to fall asleep, the less likely you are to succeed, regardless of the state of fatigue you’re in. After an intensive week at work, and almost a month’s worth of parental visits, I could certainly have done with the rest. But it was not to be.

Earlier that day, as Friday afternoon dragged on at the office, I had visions of my bed and imagined myself cuddle in the crisp white linen (in reality, my bedding is far less fancy, but hey, it’s a daydream after all!). But when the time came and went, I lay awake in bed thinking about the quagmires of work. Certainly, this couldn’t be what long weekends were supposed to be about?

At 5 o’clock sharp, the alarm went off. I must have succumbed to sleep eventually, but judging by the way I felt, it could not have been very long ago. Despite a cold shower and a double double from the Tim Hortons by the bus stop, I was barely able to keep my eyes up as I joined the security queues at the airport. Mercifully, they were short and moving quickly, for my vision still blurred passengers and sheep – and this time, they had an incredibly strong somniferous effect! (None were allowed to stray, either).

In a daze, I made it to the plane I was supposed to catch, and before the flight attendants even had a chance to ask if I’d prefer the greasy omelet or the chewy waffles for breakfast, I’d already reclined my seat, pulled down my eye mask and was off to the land of clouds.

As a dear friend, and recently departed traveller, once put it to me, he’d “always fared best by letting my body sleep when it wanted to, and staying awake when it did not.” May he rest in peace.

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